By Samantha Phillips
As local government funding diminished under Gov. John Kasich’s administration, more Ohio communities pointed speed cameras at highly traveled thoroughfares.
For cash-strapped communities, these cameras are used to catch an increasing number of speeding drivers and generate additional revenue. The cameras also did not drive up expenses for communities’ general and police funds.
Speed-camera citations are generally $100 and $150 in a construction zone. Communities split the revenue with companies that provide the cameras, generating millions of dollars.
Unlike a regular citation, speed camera citations don’t add points to a driver’s license, aren’t reported to an insurance carrier, and there are no appearances of violations on a driver’s state report.
While an officer sitting at the side of the road can only apprehend one speeding driver at a time, a speed camera operator can capture multiple license plates of speeders at the same time, driving up ticket citations and revenue for a community.
Critics of the technology, however, call the cameras a “cash cow” and argue their use diminishes community policing.
The Vindicator sought to quantify how much revenue Valley communities were generating with speed cameras, but discovered while officials could provide gross revenue numbers, recordkeeping about the percentages that partner corporations collect is, at best, vague.
Youngstown contracts with Optotraffic. Liberty, Girard, Howland and Weathersfield contract with Blue Line Solutions, which reimburses those communities for the regular or overtime hours their part-time or full-time officers operate the speed cameras.
While proponents of speed cameras argue cameras are increasing safety, some critics, such as Atty. Marc Dann, have concerns.
“In my view, the companies that are providing services to the municipalities are the tail wagging the dog,” he said. “Municipalities should be exercising direct control over how police officers issue traffic penalties, and the contracts these folks have with companies delegate a ton of that responsibility to the company itself, and the company will then encourage these municipalities to pay overtime.”
Dann filed a class-action lawsuit against Girard in July 2018, alleging that more than 7,000 drivers on Interstate 80 exceeding 55 mph between Dec. 7, 2017, and Jan. 6, 2018, were wrongfully ticketed after construction ended.
The Ohio Department of Transportation had not removed the lowered speed limit signs, even though the speed limit had reverted to the normal speed.
“Any time you start commercializing law enforcement, everyone should take pause and worry about that,” he said.
“Blue Line Solutions is making such a huge amount of money,” he added. “To pay someone overtime to generate more tickets is a bargain for Blue Line. ... I get the communities’ desire to have revenue. The state government and local funds have decreased every year in the past decade. I get that local governments are under financial pressure, but tying enforcement to profits is never a good idea.”
Some local officials argue speed cameras are a positive addition to a community because their presence reduces the number of crashes.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, speed was a factor in 31 percent of traffic deaths or a total of 112,580 between 2005 and 2014. Police presence on the highway cuts down on the number of people speeding, said state Rep. Gil Blair of Mineral Ridge, D-63rd, who served as a Weathersfield trustee at the time of this report.
“All the arguments are from someone caught going way over the speed limit, and that’s the whole thing. If you are going 10 miles over the speed limit you are at risk of hurting or killing someone. They set these speed limits for a reason,” he said.
Girard Police Chief John Norman said his city has seen a reduction in crashes. A decade ago, he said the number of accidents would usually be more than 300, but in 2017 it was down to 211 and in 2018 it was 214.
Youngstown Police Chief Robin Lees said the city uses speed cameras on Interstate 680 and in school zones only, and the city has seen a drastic drop in accidents on the interstate.
“We found that we have a 30 to 35 percent reduction in accidents on I-680,” Lees said.
Not only are there fewer accidents on I-680, but it’s also safer for officers to use the cameras rather than pull out into traffic to apprehend a speeding driver, and for drivers who would be pulled over and have to re-enter traffic, he said.
CHANGES IN WEATHERSFIELD
From January 2013 to December 2016, Weathersfield Township police issued 9,423 traffic citations. For part of that time, the township had contracted with the Maryland-based speed camera company Optotraffic.
When the city switched contracts to the Tennessee-based Blue Line Solutions in 2017, police issued 9,811 tickets in that year alone. In 2018, police issued 12,515 tickets with the speed cameras. Many of these drivers were caught on Interstate 80.
Speed camera citations generated $2,580,580 for the township and police between 2016 and 2018, with the bulk of it from operating Blue Line cameras.
To supplement staffing, the Weathersfield trustees approved an amendment in June 2018 to accept Blue Line Solutions’ “donation” of $6,600 per month to allocate to the police department to ensure the cameras could be staffed.
Of the donation, $1,980 is allocated to cover a portion of the police clerk’s salary and benefits. The remaining $4,620 of the donation is allocated to cover police overtime at the rate of $50.53 per hour, including benefits.
Blue Line Solutions provided the township $79,200 in 2018 to ensure a return on investment that topped $390,000.
The $2.5 million has been a windfall for the township.
Blair said the township has purchased police cruisers, upgraded police equipment and will use some of the revenue for an opiate training center for law enforcement. The township also uses the funds for road paving and park projects.
Blair noted the traffic- camera programs have not been developed by townships and cities on their own.
“This is a provision that was provided for in the Ohio Revised Code,” he said. “I like to say the state Legislature gave us a toolbox to work with.”
Many officials in the Mahoning Valley say the Kasich administration’s 2011 authorization of nearly 50 percent cuts to the Local Government Fund triggered the need to increase revenue to keep local governments operating.
“We’ve lost revenue from the state like crazy,” Blair said. “Those things happen, and you work with what you have in your toolbox.”
But drivers are often critics of the program.
Laura Cook of Warren said she believes the speed cameras are operated strictly to collect dollars, and believes it doesn’t deter people from speeding because people don’t receive the tickets until weeks later in the mail.
“The officers that are manning the cameras could be utilized more effectively patrolling the streets and maintaining safe communities and highways,” she said. “Speeding does need to be controlled, but these cameras are not accomplishing that; they are just bringing in revenue for cities.”
The township had implemented a speed-camera program operated by Blue Line Solutions in March 2019, but suspended its use shortly after the township’s legal director, Mark Finamore, ruled against using part-time officers for the program.
The idea was to keep full-time officers actively patrolling in the township, especially since the department has a small staff.
The Ohio Revised Code states only law enforcement can run the speed cameras, and law enforcement is defined in the ORC as a full-time employee working 40 hours per week.
Finamore advised the township not to have part-time officers staff the cameras to stay on the safe side.
“If these programs are for the right reasons and they use good, selective enforcement to get the people who are really in violation and not just using it to generate money, it’s OK, although from a legal standpoint, some parts of it are questionable,” Finamore said.
“I just think it has, at minimum, the appearance of impropriety, and I think people resent that because it doesn’t look fair,” he added.
Whether communities can use speed cameras on state routes they don’t have jurisdiction over, such as state Route 11, is a legal question, Finamore said.
Liberty began partnering with Blue Line Solutions last month. Before that, the township contracted with Optotraffic since 2016.
The township collects 65 percent of the revenue generated and Blue Line takes the remainder. A section of the contract says Blue Line will reimburse the township for its part-time and full-time officers using the camera and for overtime.
In 2016 and 2017, the township generated $72,525 in traffic citations. That jumped to $208,972 in 2018.
The amount of revenue began to spike in August 2018. Police Chief Toby Meloro confirmed the department has increased speed cameras use under his leadership. He said speed-camera enforcement on township roads and on Interstate 80 and state Route 11 allows the township to avoid increasing police levies.
“We don’t want to continue to go back to our taxpayers so we use [the revenue] for capital improvement,” he said. Trustees approved an amendment to the Optotraffic contract to allow the company to reimburse the township $2,700 per month to offset the cost of police overtime, though officers run speed cameras on their normal patrol hours, not just as overtime.
Liberty issues citations for drivers going more than 13 miles over the speed limit. “It slows people down and saves lives,” Meloro said.
The revenue is split 50/50 between the general fund and police fund for Liberty. Meloro said they are building up the capital improvement fund because police will eventually need new cruisers. For the township, officials expect to spend funds on a new roof for the administration building and park upgrades.
After the city contracted with Blue Line, it generated $3,555,526 from 77,810 speed-camera citations from July 2016 to December 2018.
About $1.2 million has been used for the street-paving program, said service Director Jerry Lambert.
Equipment purchased through the fines include 11 marked cruisers, two unmarked cruisers, one transport community van, one zoning vehicle, computers, body cameras, portable radios and new 911 equipment (Girard has its own dispatch center), supplies for school resource officers, shotguns and rifles, ammunition, bulletproof vests and badges.
Norman said the equipment and upgrades were necessary for officer and community safety, but were “big costs that probably would have drained our budget.”
The police department also started a part-time police program to bolster staffing. The part-time police officers aren’t funded by camera funds, but using the fund to pay for equipment and cruisers freed up police funding for more part-time and a couple of full-time officers.
“It’s helped us. Now instead of having two cars out, we can have four cars out because we have more officers,” he said.
Howland Township officials earlier this month agreed to end its speed-camera program this week over fears of potential losses in Local Government Funds from the state, according to published reports.
After Howland contracted with Blue Line last year, it generated $609,888 from 11,845 speed-camera citations from March 2018 to December 2018.
The township collected 68 percent of the revenue.
The Vindicator requested the amount of revenue that Blue Line collects from the speed-camera program in the township, but Jeff Urso, assistant police chief, said the police department does not track that revenue.
With the revenue it had collected, Howland purchased police cruisers and replaced the police radio system.
When it comes to the speed camera program, Urso explained officers who were operating the cameras could also respond to emergency calls.
“... Now we have a private company that pays overtime where officers can be at the ready in case of emergency, so it’s a win-win for everyone,” he said.
Officers operating the speed cameras can respond to emergency calls or assist other officers as needed.
Youngstown partnered with Optotraffic in 2015, agreeing the company would take 35 percent of the generated revenue.
From January 2016 to December 2018, the city generated $3,075,604 from the speed-camera program. The funds that Youngstown police generate from it must be used for police equipment per city ordinance; it can’t be used for officer salaries or pay increases.
If there is overtime, the speed-camera fund covers it, rather than receiving reimbursements.
“We have a good relationship with Optotraffic,” Lees said. “We aren’t looking to change right now.”
One of the first purchases the police department made was a new transport van that cost about $55,000, which is used regularly to transport criminals to court or to transport suspects to jail in situations that lead to multiple arrests.
The money is often used for garage operations, which includes car parts, tires and certain repairs and generally costs about $340,000 per year.
“That was something that was previously a general fund expense,” Lees said.
Among other purchases, the department has bought six new cruisers this year, which can cost more than $50,000 after purchasing technology and safety equipment.
The fund also partially finances the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence program and was used to purchase signs for school zones by the city.
“The only place I have spent money that is a recurring expense is when we transitioned our radio system,” he said. The old system was beginning to fail, so Youngstown joined neighboring communities such as Austintown and Boardman to get a new system.
Aside from the fact that there are fewer crashes on the interstate, Lees said the cameras also provide more safety. “I don’t talk to anybody that doesn’t say traffic has slowed down on 680,” he said.